A Presidential Election

In January 1982 I learned that I would be sent to Finland to spend a year as a high school exchange student starting in August. The internet was well over a decade away. Learning about my new home for a year required searching for current information about Finland from libraries, talking with acquaintances of acquaintances who had visited Finland, and meeting a few exchange students from Finland. Every once and a while the atmosphere would allow me to listen to shortwave broadcasts of the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation.

In the quest for knowledge I had the good fortune that Finland in January 1982 was in the world media. The country was having a presidential election. It was the first normal presidential election since 1937 in which Urho Kekkonen was not on the ballot. It was the first election since 1956 in which Kekkonen was not the incumbent and prohibitive favorite to win. The outcome of the election was also historic. The winner, the Social Democrats’ Mauno Koivisto, was Finland’s first president from the left and first born in an urban area (Turku).

Urho Kekkonen (1900-1986) served as Finland’s president from 1956 until health problems forced him to resign in October 1981. My classmates at school in Ylivieska had grown up not knowing any other president. Until 1994 Finland’s presidents were elected by an electoral college whose individual electors were chosen by the people. Kekkonen won the 1956 election by the slimmest of margins 151-149. He was then reelected in 1962 and 1968 in landslides. Before the end of his third consecutive six-year term, parliament by a five-sixths majority overrode the constitution and extended Kekkonen’s term set to expire in 1974 to 1978. At the end of this extended term, Kekkonen then decided to run for yet another six-year term, winning it handily. Only after Kekkonen’s presidency would a president be limited to two six-year terms.

For several reasons Kekkonen was able to stay in office for so long, Many reasons represent topics of books in and of themselves. Yes, he did have the backing of Moscow. This backing was particularly helpful in winning a second term in 1962. In the months before the election, the Soviets created a crisis in Finnish-Soviet relations designed to insure that Finnish voters would rally around Kekkonen. Kekkonen became the embodiment of good relations with the USSR. By the 1970s, criticism of Kekkonen became tantamount to criticism of good relations with the USSR. Kekkonen worked to improve Finland’s economy—a departure from his predecessors who focused largely on their constitutional authority in foreign and security policy. During Kekkonen’s presidency, Finland became increasingly wealthy. Over the twentieth century as a whole no European country had higher rates of economic growth than Finland. Much of that growth occurred during Kekkonen’s presidency. Kekkonen’s foreign policy made Finland a reliable and visible partner in the easing of tensions in the Cold War. Helsinki became place for meetings between American and Soviet leaders. In 1975, Kekkonen hosted the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. At this meeting, leaders of Europe and North America signed the Helsinki Accords that lessened Cold War tensions and gave hope to dissidents in Communist Eastern Europe. The conference, Kekkonen’s most lasting achievement, became a permanent organization, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Kekkonen left office in 1981 leaving the country in a more secure and prosperous place than when he became president a quarter-century earlier. The price of his presidency was a diminution of democracy. Many still question not the high price of Kekkonen’s successes but the necessity of having paid the price at all.

 Schools and Violence

On Tuesday of this week a trial began in Kuopio in eastern Finland. The accused is a 25-year-old man charged with attacking his fellow students and teachers in a classroom with a sword last year. Before he could be stopped 25 people were injured and one killed. In September 2008, a twenty-two year-old student at a vocational school in Kauhajoki in Ostrobothnia killed ten in a shooting rampage before killing himself with his legal gun. Months earlier in November 2007, an eighteen year-old student entered his school in the southern Finnish town of Tuusula. Legally possessing a handgun, he shot eight people, including the school’s director, before shooting himself. He had told of his plans days before in You Tube video.

Over the last two decades Finland has been at the center of world’s attention for its educational system. The school system in any country reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of the country at large. Finland has problems with violence that undermines its reputation as the world’s happiest country. A recent doctoral thesis concluded that Finland ranks second among EU countries in the rate of domestic violence. Finland’s overall rate of violent crime corresponds more to the higher rates in the Baltic States than with its Scandinavian neighbors to the west. Acts of violence against police have doubled since the year 2000. More than one in five people in Finland have experienced violence or the threat of it at work. One historically high form of violent crime—suicide—has been on the decline. In research of sixteenth-century Finland I examine sources known as the bailiff’s records. They are central to anyone studying Finland’s sixteenth century. These records were kept by local bailiffs and include such documents as letters, tax ledgers, and lists of fines levied in court. One can go for pages reading lists of people who received three-mark fines for assault. If one reads only the bailiff’s records, one could easily think that all people did in sixteenth-century Finland was assault each other.

The same reasons for violence are trotted out after every mass killing, whether in school or not: Finns’ inability to express their feelings constructively, the abuse of alcohol, and bullying among others. Some laws have been changed, such as raising the age to possess a handgun to twenty, but many initiatives have gone nowhere.  There has not been a mass crackdown on the ownership of firearms such as those in Great Britain or Australia. For the reason behind the reluctance I look to another country unwilling to confront its culture of violence—the United States. In the United States, crime is largely understood as a function of individual moral weakness. A mass murderer is often easily explained away as an isolated incident that nobody could have helped. Some people are just evil. In Europe and in particular in very homogenous countries like Finland, crime is understood as coming out of the cracks of what should be a cohesive society that cares for all. Individual crime emanates from a collective context. While I would argue that this approach to crime leads to lower overall rates, it does mean that to confront violent crime effectively society must admit a collective weakness. A cohesive society does not mean a perfect society.

An update to the above entry written 10 September: On 17 September 2020 European Court of Human Rights found Finland guilty of violating the right to life in the 2008 school shooting in Kauhajoki.

The Talk

The early 1980s represented one of the tensest periods in the Cold War. The USSR was in Afghanistan. In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States with promises to enhance America’s military strength against a country he dubbed an evil empire. NATO was in the process of deploying medium-range missiles. In September 1983 the Soviets shot down a South Korean airliner. In November 1983, the Soviet Union briefly interpreted a routine NATO military exercise as the beginning of a nuclear attack.

I flew to Finland in August 1982 with fellow high school exchange students from the western US and western Canada. Upon arriving at the airport in Helsinki, we were put on busses and taken to a school for a week of orientation before spreading out across the country. My first meal there was certainly an orientation. I took from the buffet table what I thought was milk and Salisbury steak. It was buttermilk and liver, two foods I never remember having previously. The organizers of the orientation had already exhorted us several times not to waste any food, so I ate my meal. The liver was good. I have never had buttermilk since.

The orientation’s program consisted of language training and several presentations about Finland. One of the presentations was given by a senior official in Finland’s foreign ministry. He talked about Finland’s foreign policy and in particular about Finland’s relationship with the Soviet Union. The official told us that, contrary to what we might have learned in our home countries, the USSR did not have any undue influence over Finland’s domestic and foreign affairs. For us to say otherwise would offend our Finnish hosts.

We were each handed a copy of the Finnish-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance (FCMA) signed in 1948. The treaty is frequently referred to in English by its Finnish initials YYA. The treaty was signed after World War II during which Finland had fought on the side of Germany against the USSR 1941-1944. Finns during the Cold War era pointed to this treaty when outsiders questioned Finland’s independence. The treaty specifically stated that Finland was not a part of the Soviet alliance system. While not a formal military alliance, the treaty called on Finland to forestall any outside attack on the Soviet Union through Finland. For the Soviets, it was a soft military alliance.

The presentation that I experienced exemplified how much in Finnish society had become mediated by Finland’s relationship with the USSR. Even the arrival of some forty or so teenagers from the United States and Canada could not occur without bringing in Finnish-Soviet relations. That the country’s foreign ministry felt it important enough to send to a senior civil servant to talk to a bunch of North American teenagers exemplifies how important it was to have everyone in the country towing the Paasikivi-Kekkonen Line, the name of the country’s official foreign policy.

Much of what was done in Finland the name of Finnish-Soviet relations during the Cold War, especially from the 1960s onward, was not instigated by the Soviet Union. It was done by domestic Finnish elites not so much to keep good relations with Moscow as to strengthen their power and authority domestically. Finland has a long history of using foreigners as a cudgel in domestic politics: the king in Stockholm until 1809, the emperor in St. Petersburg until 1917, the election of a German king in 1918, the Soviet Union, and, more recently, the Somalis in eastern Helsinki as well as the European Union.

More on Finnish—Soviet relations intermittently in future blog posts. I have resolved to keep these posts to around 500 words.

A Journey into a Last Fine Time

The Last Fine Time is a novel written in the early 1990s by Verlyn Klinkenborg. The story takes place in Buffalo, New York. The author tells a story of his father-in-law who inherited a restaurant in 1947 and transformed it from a neighborhood watering hole into a swinging night spot at a time growing postwar prosperity. By the end of the 1960s the prosperity began to wane, the regulars began to move into the suburbs, and the upheavals convulsing the rest of the country reached the old neighborhood. The restaurant closed. The last fine time had come to an end.

In August 1982 I landed in Finland during a period that since has been remembered as a last fine time. According to opinion polls such as one by the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation in 2013 , Finns see the 1980s as the best decade to have lived in. This sentiment is not without a factual basis. Unemployment was much lower in the 1980s than in the late 1970s or any time after after the 1980s. The strong Finnish mark made foreign travel not only affordable but outright profitable. If you were short on money for a month in Spain, a bank would gladly loan you the money. The Soviet Union cast a slowly decreasing shadow over the country. Many who had left Finland in the late 1960s for Sweden in search of work were now returning.

The city in which I would spend the next year, Ylivieska, embodied the decade. At the time of my arrival, public buildings from city hall to the library to the swim hall had been built within the last ten years or so. Much of the single-family housing was also new. This city of some 12,000 inhabitants had commercial air service. The only sign of centuries of habitation was the august white church from the late eighteenth century. The church succumbed to arson in 2016.

Of course, in popular memory decades later the prosperity of the era has been even more exaggerated and the difficulties of the era forgotten. Finns longing for the 1980s certainly would not want to return to buying alcohol from state-run stores in which one had to line up at a counter and tell a sales person what one wanted. Taxes were higher. Towing the official line toward the Soviet Union was still a requirement for many for advancement. Life was good if one fit in the very homogenous cultural norms of the time.

More on the roaring eighties and its crash and burn in later entries.

Why this blog?

I am writing this for two reasons. First, I have reached a point in my life where I have accumulated enough experience about Finland that I want to write them down in order to make sense of my own Finnish past. Historians aim to master the past. Here I want to try to master my past experiences. Since August 1982 I have lived and worked in Finland on an off. I have witnessed a country that has gone through significant changes. Despite Finland’s reputation as a stable country, many of the institutions and operating assumptions that existed in 1982 no longer exist. In less than twenty years after 1982 the country’s official foreign policy became obsolete, Finland joined the European Union, the euro replaced the mark as the country’s currency, a woman of African ancestry was chosen Miss Finland, and the country elected an unchurched, unmarried woman president of the republic. Nokia went from being known for making toilet paper and tires to becoming synonymous with mobile telephones.  All of these changes were inconceivable in 1982. In the last twenty years Finland has seen the end of Nokia as a mobile phone giant. The growth of the far right on the last decade has achieved levels of support that the far left had in 1982. A country that has been identified as a world’s happiest is dealing with growing problems of income inequality, declines in education, and unexamined xenophobia toward a growing population of immigrant background.

The second goal of this blog is to give historical analyses to current problems. For some blog entries, I envision giving a history of the present. I hope that in pursuing both aims readers might find useful insights. Many of the entries will be drawn from the everyday.

For those who want to read yet another account of a foreigner expressing awe about an “exotic” country will be disappointed. I do not consider Finland exotic or inscrutable. I do consider it interesting enough to have kept my attention for most of my life.